Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mushi Production Best Series

As an anime fan in the late 1980s I felt a certain complacency; I'd seen Robotech and Captain Harlock, Space Battleship Yamato and Bubblegum Crisis and Dirty Pair. I'd spent all night copying VHS fansubs of Ranma 1/2 episodes and the Patlabor movie and showing the Daicon III-IV videos to packed rooms at comic cons. Everybody wanted to see Akira or Project A-Ko or the Macross movie over and over again. Anime fandom was becoming... dull.

the fateful Maxell

Around that time my pal Meg sent me a Maxell T-120, and sandwiched between an episode of Babel II and an insane 1934 Buck Rogers short (produced for the 1933-34 Chicago Worlds Fair!) was something that took my preconceived notions of "Japanese animation" and kicked them to the curb. That something was a copy of a mid-80s Japanese videotape titled "Mushi Pro Best Series," and not only was it the first time I'd see Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion in their original Japanese, it was also the first time I'd see Princess Knight and Tomorrow's Joe and Dororo. It was my first glimpse of back-catalog oldies like Boys' Detective Team and Animal 1, it was stunning proof that the live-action/anime hybrid Vampire really existed, and proof somewhere out there was an English-language version of the 1969 Animerama feature A Thousand And One Nights. This tape took my complacent seen-it-all anime snob world and blasted it out of existence, filling the void with twenty five or thirty years of cartoons I'd never heard of, that nobody I knew had ever heard of, and that I was going to spend the rest of my time finding out about. Decades later my pal Ryan would find the original VHS in an eBay auction and he'd send it my way, and now I'm sharing it with you.

Mushi Production, as you'll know if you read the book we reviewed last time, was Osamu Tezuka's animation studio. Eventually Tezuka would divide his corporate holdings into Tezuka Productions for his manga and intellectual copyrights, Mushi Production for animation, and Mushi Pro Shoji as a licensing company handling character goods, toys, and other merchandise. As one of Japan's powerhouses of "terebi manga", as it was called at the time, the studio hired a staff full of future animation legends like Osamu Dezaki, Rin Taro, Gisaburo Sugii, and Ryosuke Takahashi, and its hit series are still popular Japanese cultural icons. Mushi Pro and Mushi Pro Shoji both took a big hit in the early 1970s, and while Shoji didn't make it, Mushi Pro lived to animate another day. After a few years of inactivity, Satoshi Ito revived the studio with a smaller staff and a more fiscally responsible focus on films and specials rather than TV series.

Mushi's latter-day productions include firefly fairy tale "The Adventures of Pipi", disaster film "Typhoon In Ise Bay", civil engineering drama "Pattai Lai - Water On The South Island", the taxation information film "I Will Show You Another World", and the wonderfully titled foreign travel safety short "Gentleman Thief Gary's Japanese Capture Strategy!" But this VHS is Mushi's Best Series from '63 until '84. And what are those best series?

Astro Boy has machine guns in his butt
Astro Boy How could a Mushi Pro Best Series Collection begin without Astro Boy? Tetsuwan Atom, or Mighty Atom, or Astro Boy as we knew him, was the ten-thousand horsepower robot boy created by Dr. Tenma as an android memorial to his dead son. As a 21st century Pinocchio, Astro Boy battled evil, went to school, dealt with a bratty robot sister, travelled through time and space, and fought the greatest robot in the world! Based on the popular Osamu Tezuka manga, the '63 to '66 Astro Boy series would become Tezuka's signature creation.

spacemen with a mission, they must make a very big decision
Wonder Three Everyone who saw "The Day The Earth Stood Still" knows the score: Galactic Command representatives visit Earth to see how dangerous we are with our atom bombs. Maybe they'll squash us like bugs before we cause any trouble. This time the Space Brothers don't send Michael Rennie and a giant clunky robot; our current spacemen with a mission are three aliens who, to better blend in with Earth society, are changed into a bunny, a duck, and a horse. Befriended by Earth boy Shinichi Hoshi, whose older brother is a super spy for the secret Phoenix agency, the Wonder Three find themselves involved in adventures around the world! Wonder Three aired from June '65 until June '66 and would get an American TV release as "The Amazing Three" that would vanish from the airwaves in the mid 70s.

Jungle Emperor Tezuka's Jungle Emperor became Japan's first color TV animation in this internationally successful '65-'66 series about Leo, a talking white lion who becomes ruler of his jungle home deep in "deepest darkest" Africa. Developed with an eye towards foreign sales, it aired on NBC as Kimba The White Lion. NBC passed on Tezuka's more episodic sequel, however. Jungle Emperor's vibrant colors, dramatic storylines, and powerful Isao Tomita score made this series an instant classic that would be seen on American TV for decades and eventually make its way to VHS and DVD.

not to be confused with the Disney film
Go Ahead Leo The '66-'67 continuation of Jungle Emperor featured an adult Leo and his family as they struggle to defend the peace of the jungle. Less cartoony, more violent, and at times experimental, Leo was exactly what NBC did NOT want in a cartoon show, and the series would not air in America for nearly twenty years, finally winding up on Pat Robertson's CBN network and a series of cheap public domain home video releases.

that's one crazy monkey king
Son Goku's Great Adventure This TV series is based on Tezuka's 1950s adventure-gag manga, in turn based on the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en entitled Saiyu-Ki or "Journey To The West," itself the basis for a 1959 Toei film that Tezuka was a part of and that was screened in America as "Alakazam The Great." This particular great adventure aired from January until September '67 and is all about Son Goku, the monkey who gains amazing powers and uses them to get into all kinds of trouble along with his pals Genjo Sanzo, Hakkai, Sagojo, and Son Goku's bratty girlfriend Tatsuko. This animated series abandoned all pretense of logic or historical accuracy and instead series director Gisaburo "Jack And The Beanstalk" Sugii ran rampant with cartoony gags, crazy techniques, and breaking the fourth wall to comment to the audience. Other talent included Osamu "Golgo 13" Dezaki and Ryosuke "Votoms" Takahashi.

honey, the horse can tell
Princess Knight A girl born with a boy's spirit, Princess Sapphire must masquerade as a Prince and defeat the evil schemes of her rebellious courtiers to stay on the throne of her kingdom. Princess Knight, airing in Japan from April 1967 until April of 1968, was pitched to US television as both "Choppy And The Princess" and "Princess Knight." The show aired in a few US markets as "Princess Knight" in the 70s, and a "Choppy" compilation film made it to home video. The TV series finally appeared on North American DVD recently.  The original manga and its sequel Twin Knights are also available in English.

Boys & One Girl Detective Team
Boys Detective Team / Wanpaku Detectives This show, based on pioneering Japanese mystery author Edogawa Rampo's "Boys Detective Team" stories, would be the first anime directed by Rin Taro. Boys Detective Team starred, yes, the Boys Detective Team, sort of a Japanese Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew gang of juvenile sleuths, battling the evil schemes of the mysterious Twenty-Face Phantom, from February until September of '68. The Boys Detective Team would reappear or be rebooted or updated or whatever in the 2016 anime "Trickster".

he's an animal
Animal 1 High schooler Ichirou Azuma is the oldest of seven kids, a freestyle featherweight wrestler, and star of this series that aired from April to September of 1968. Nicknamed "Animal 1," he battles towards the '68 Mexico City Olympic Games. Loosely based on the career of Olympic wrestler Osamu Watanabe – who won every one of the several hundred matches in his entire career without ever giving up a single point!! – the original manga was by Noboru "Star Of The Giants" Kawasaki.

vampire (a show about werewolves)
Vampire Hidden among us are humans who can turn into animals; the scheming criminal Makube plots to use their power to conquer the world. Can Toppei the werewolf defeat Makube's plans? This October '68- March '69 live-action series starred Tezuka in a cameo role (Toppei comes to Tokyo to work at Mushi Pro) and some scenes were shot in Tezuka's front yard. The scenes with animals and monsters were animated, leading to jarring and unearthly effects, particularly when combined with writing/directing talent like Hiro "Female Prisoner Scorpion 701" Matsuda. Equal parts Universal horror, French New Wave, and Japanese cartoon, there's nothing like Vampire.

the titular Dororo, with stick
Dororo Future anime-world stars like Osamu Dezaki, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and Gisaburo Sugii worked on this April-September '69 adaptation of Tezuka's swordsman vs yokai revenge manga, the story of Hyakkimaru, the boy who must kill 48 demons to undo his father's curse and become whole again. Both the Dororo anime and manga would eventually find their way to North American release.

A Thousand And One Nights Released on June 12, 1969, this ambitious adult animated film was a big budget retelling of what over the centuries became an accretion of Arabic legend, the earliest iteration of which dates back to the 9th century. Tezuka and Eichi Yamamoto directed this widescreen epic, the first "Animerama" film, in a herculean effort to drag the medium of animation into the adult world. Did this film ever screen in English? We're still looking for evidence.

Tomorrow's Joe
Tomorrow's Joe Tetsuya Chiba's monumental boxing manga epic became Osamu Dezaki's signature animated TV series, as every hallmark of Dezaki's animation career – the freeze frames, the multiple cameras, the slow motion – bursts forth to tell the story of Joe Yabuki, orphan prizefighter, who battles in and out of the ring for his own destiny. Mushi's most successful non-Astro Boy television series, Tomorrow's Joe aired from April 1970 until September of '71 and remains a touchstone of Showa-era Japanese popular culture. This one was pitched to American TV as "Rocky Joe", but nobody bought it.

hail, Caesar

Cleopatra The second Animerama feature, this ambitious, schizophrenic, anachronistic historical epic features a blue Caesar, time travel, cameos from Sazae-San, and a live action framing sequence starring human actors with cartoon heads. You can literally see Mushi Production going bankrupt with every frame of this indulgent mess. Cleopatra's Japan release was September 1970, and the film would screen a few years later in America with a self-imposed X rating and a harsh NYT review.

she's playing the Lee Marvin song "I Was Born Under A Wandering Star"
Wandering Sun / Nozomi In the Sun Switched at birth, Nozomi and Miki grow up in different families but both become singers and their paths cross as they compete in the entertainment world for success and romance. Wandering Sun aired from April to September '71 and the animation staff included Yoshiyuki "Gundam" Tomino and Yoshikazu "also Gundam" Yasuhiko. This series was the first cartoon to depict the entertainment world ("The Archies" don't count) and the first shojo series to deal with realistic teenagers as opposed to magical girls or princesses. Wandering Sun was based on the manga by Keisuke Fujikawa (writer) and Mayumi Suzuki (artist), originally serialized in Shogakukan's "Weekly Shojo", and which in turn was inspired by the real life singer Fuji Keiko.

rock you like a hurricane
Hurricane Kunimatsu Blazing transfer student Ishida Kunimatsu arrives at a new school and his boisterous fighting spirit causes all kinds of trouble. However, the school principal wisely channels Kunimatsu's youthful energy into various school sports teams by promising Kunimatsu all-you-can-eat lunches! This remake of P Productions' "Harris's Whirlwind" – yes, the same P Productions behind Space Giants and Spectreman - got a name change because the sponsor Kanebo Harris dropped out, and aired October '71 until September 1972, and was based on the original Tetsuya Chiba manga. A Hurricane Kunimatsu short film appeared in 72's Manga Matsuri film festival alongside Hellhound Liner 0011!

Belladonna Of Sadness People have been using the phrase "animation for grownups" since Akira first hit Blockbuster shelves, but Belladonna Of Sadness was Japan's first truly adult animated film, a challenging, hallucinogenic watercolor nightmare unlike anything seen before, or since. Belladonna Of Sadness is based on French historian Jules Michelet's La Sorciere (1862), a seminal work portraying medieval witchcraft practices as rebellion against church and state. Today La Sorciere is seen as historically inaccurate, but on the other hand Michelet is the guy who invented the term 'Renaissance' so he must have had something going on somewhere. Largely abandoned after its June 1973 release, Belladonna of Sadness resurfaced recently with a 4K re-release to disturb a whole new audience.

those cute polar bears
Adventures of The Polar Cubs After a long interregnum, Mushi returned with more practical management and started delivering more socially acceptable animation, like this kid-friendly film about two polar bear cubs (July '79 release) and their adventures among their animal friends up north. Because polar bears have friends, right? With a few songs, some celebrity voices, and stop-motion animation, this one might as well be one of the Rankin/Bass specials Mushi helped out on, but on its own it's fairly undistinguished. A clearance-bin VHS release in the States placed it in front of a lot of American kid eyeballs, though.

Yuki says "peace, man"
Yuki Released in August of 1981, Yuki was directed by Tadashi Imai, based on a story by Ryusuke Saito, and featured character designs by Tetsuya Chiba. In the Muromachi Era (1336-1573), Yuki the snow goddess comes to a small village and challenges the evil that lives both in men's hearts and also in the volcano next door, which houses a giant Majin-style lava monster.

Star Of Cottonland Watch Mushi's director Shinichi Tsuji and original manga artist Yumiko Oshima invent "moe" in this 1984 film of a sad little kitten adopted by a handsome young man – the twist being the sad little kitten is shown as a doll-like cat-human hybrid in frilly Victorian dress. Will Chibi-neko ever become a real girl and marry her "husband", or will she instead become a real cat and pee on the couch? Will legions of gothic lolita fashion designers take their visual cues from this production? And didn't 2001's Magical Meow Meow Taruto shamelessly steal everything from this?

Of course, this videotape doesn't cover everything Mushi Pro ever produced. Both pre and post bankruptcy they worked on a wide variety of domestic and international animation, including Lensman, Rayearth, Initial D, Pokemon, Moomin, Panzer World Galient, Robot Carnival, Princess Nine, Sgt. Frog, Vickie the Viking, Trigun, Wansa-kun, Barefoot Gen, and a host of international co-productions, including the videogame tie-in Pole Position and lots of 60s-'70s TV for Rankin/Bass, including a bizarre special starring the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, and Flip Wilson called "The Mad Mad Mad Comedians."

that time Osamu Dezaki animated Flip Wilson
We'd still be talking about Mushi today if only for their hit '60s TV shows. But as this VHS time capsule shows, Mushi was much more than Astro Boy and Kimba and Princess Knight, much more than a Tezuka-only production team; Mushi was a studio that embraced the vision of other manga artists and worked hard to push the boundaries of what animation could do and where animation could go. Even in failure Mushi fascinates, and as the 4K restoration of Belladonna Of Sadness proves, one generation's supposed misstep is another generation's lost masterpiece.

Thanks again to Meg E. and Ryan J. for putting this tape in my hands, and to Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Pro for making this all happen in the first place.

-Dave Merrill

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